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Illinois-record flathead: How & why of really big catfish

Illinois record flathead, caught Aug. 29, 2015 from Sangchris Lake.

James Klauzer kept going back to “surreal’’ to describe catching his 81.4-pound flathead, the Illinois record, early Saturday morning from Sangchris Lake.

“It was kind of like, something that you work for, fish for, for years and years, and it is actually sitting there looking you in face and it doesn’t seem real,’’ he said of the official weighing. “There are guys who fish way more times than me and are sponsored, and there is me with my rickety 14-foot boat. I had a state record and I was excited, but it seemed surreal to me.’’

THE SETUP

“I know fish are that big,’’ Klauzer said. “Every time I go out and do some catfishing that fish is what I am after every time.’’

He figures he has been targeting big catfish for about 10 years. The closest he came was a 71-pound flathead out of the Mississippi River in Illinois.

But Friday night/Saturday was different.

“Wasn’t really targeting big fish that night; I was with a friend [Scott Gapen] that I go on mission trips outside of the country with [to Guatemala],’’ Klauzer said. “All I wanted to do was hang out with a friend and catch a few channel catfish for the freezer.’’

It would be much more than that.

First Klauzer stopped by Big Red’s Bait and Tackle in Springfield to get some of the hooks he had started using, the Double Action hooks (a hybrid circle hook) from Team Catfish.

“He came in here last night and got hooks and swivels and he said he is going to catch some flatheads; and he did,” said Trevor Miller at Big Red’s.

Yes, indeed.

THE CATCH

Klauzer and Gapen caught some pan-sized (3- to 5-pound) channel catfish and had about half a dozen on a stringer as the night lengthened into Saturday.

Then the big bite came in small about 2:30 a.m.

“I got a couple nibbles and picked the pole up,’’ Klauzer said. “He pulled until it triggered my sense to set the hook. Immediately I knew it was a significant fish.’’

He was using shad, roughly 2 inches, caught with a casting net.

“As soon as I set the hook, the fish immediately set off out to my right and it was pulling the drag out on my reel,’’ Klauzer said. “Any fish that can pull the drag out on my reel is a large fish.’’

Truer than true.

Klauzer was using an Abu Garcia Ambassador C4 6600 series reel with the Carbon Matrix drag system, cranked all the way down, with SpiderWire Stealth 80-pound braid. That is equipment designed to handle a truly big fish.

“That is when Scott stared reeling in his poles as fast as he could, clearing the way,’’ Klauzer said. “It was running right to left and back right. It circled the boat. The whole ordeal lasted about five minutes.’’

When the rods were in, including Klauzer’s other pole, Gapen went into photography mode. Klauzer’s is the best documented fish I have ever covered.

Klauzer has a 1968 flatbottom johnboat. Last week his 25-hp motor broke, so he was using a 9.9.

“Surreal all the things that happened,’’ Klauzer said.

When the fish was boat side, Klauzer, who does not trust nets on big fish, reached down and locked the jaw.

“When it broke the water, I knew in my knower that it was a lake record and was about 90 percent sure it was the state record,’’ he said. “So my adrenaline was going and I had no trouble yanking him in the boat.’’

Klauzer, 43, goes 6-1 and 205. He is a remodeling contractor.

Obviously, he did not have anything big enough to keep the fish alive in the boat, so he ran a stringer through the soft part behind the jaw (not through the gills so it would not hurt the fish).

“I doubled it through and tied it to a cleat on the side of the boat,’’ he said.

Then he began looking up phone numbers for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Nothing was open in the late night. So he tried the Sangamon County Sheriff’s dispatcher, to see if any conservation police officers were on duty. None were.

“I didn’t want my fish to die,’’ he said.

So he released the channel catfish they had on stringers to eat. They tied the flathead to a cleat on the dock

“Now I faced my next problem,’’ he said. “I didn’t have anything to transport the fish. Scott said, `This is too important. Leave the fish tied to dock. I will stay with it.’ ‘’

CHASE TO CERTIFY

Klauzer went home with the boat and his truck to pick up the insert to a koi pond. He switched to his wife’s truck, put the insert, a couple 5-gallon buckets and a digital scale in the bed.

Back at the lake, they weighed the fish on the digital scale. It hit 83 pounds, then the scale went blank. Several times.

That was good enough for Klauzer to know he needed to pursue certifying the record.

They filled the liner with water with the buckets, then put the fish in. Back home, they put air pumps from aquariums to oxygenate the fish in the insert.

Klauzer called Big Red’s. Miller gave him the number of Pete Ochs, a mainstay of catfish tournaments in Springfield.

Once Ochs determined that Klauzer was certain it was a record, Ochs said to drive to his house. Ochs had a 100-pound digital scale for tournaments. On that scale, it went to 84 pounds.

“Pete starts calling conservation officers he knows because he runs the tournaments,’’ Klauzer said. “By this time, word had spread through town. The street is filling up with cars. It was a circus that day.’’

Bill Parfitt, a well-known tournament catfisherman, pulled out the oxygen system they used to keep fish alive in their tournament boat and set it up in the insert with Klauzer’s fish.

Ochs finally reached Dan Stephenson, assistant fisheries chief for the IDNR.

“It was so much pandemonium that I was not sure who was who,’’ Klauzer said. “It was surreal.’’

The mount of Jody Harris’ former Illinois-record flathead on display at Carlyle Lake.

Credit: Dale Bowman

THE OLD RECORD

Jody Harris caught the former Illinois record (78 pounds) from Carlyle Lake on the Friday evening of Aug. 11, 1995 while fishing for white bass.

His record stood for 20 years and 18 days.

The mount of his fish is in the photo to the right from the display at Carlyle Lake.

THE WEIGHING

A group met at Midstate Meat Co. in Springfield just before noon on Saturday.

Paul Donelan, who owns Midstate Meat with his wife, decided to wash and sanitize a deer sled to move and weigh the fish.

“Well, it was huge, the head was so wide,’’ Stephenson said.

It was lifted and weighed outside on a scale certified to 150 pounds.

The scale finally settled at 81.4 pounds, solidly the Illinois record. Stephenson said that the record will be listed as 81 pounds, 6.4 ounces.

The final paperwork was being completed on Tuesday.

William Blankenship was climbing around on the pickup and filmed the weighing.

https://youtu.be/x7KG+AF8–d2coA

THE RELEASE

After weighing and certifying, the fish was taken back by Klauzer and Parfitt and released around 1 p.m.

“We released the fish off end of the dock,’’ Klauzer said. “Fish was alive, healthy and aggressive. Usually you have to drag fish through the water a few times. But he bit down on my hand, shook my hand enough, then let go. He swam under the water.’’

AFTERWARD NORMAL

Here’s part of why I really value this story so much.

“I was worried because it was my baby daughter’s 18th birthday and we were going to leave on a road trip,’’ Klauzer said.

He rushed home and they did the road trip of shopping and eating for Emily.

“I shut my phone off, my phone was going crazy,’’ Klauzer said. “I said, `I took up enough of your 18th birthday.’ It was a once in a lifetime opportunity. She knew it. She was very forgiving. She was also very excited.’’

THE FUTURE

Stephenson said because it was a power plant lake, the fish grow faster. He guessed Klauzer’s flathead was between 20 and 30 years old.

Oh, he thought a 100-pound flathead is realistic possibility in Illinois.

That took me back to interviewing Harris in the spring of 2014 at the ranger station at Carlyle. The most vivid thing I remember Harris saying was “I did not think [the record] would last this long. I know there are bigger fish out there.”

He was right. It just took a couple decades to prove.

FINAL PERSPECTIVE

“I may have my name on that record, but there is a lot of cogs in that machine that made that work: Bill, Scott, Pete, everybody involved, Trevor,’’ Klauzer said. “In my opinion, I share this state record. I was a stranger to a lot of of them. I share with them or they share with me.’’